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The Chronicle of Higher Education: Research & Publishing
From the issue dated December 6, 2002


Israeli Icon Under Fire

Did the nation's most celebrated archaeologist deliberately deceive the public about Masada?

By RICHARD MONASTERSKY

On the last day of October, a cavalcade of foreign dignitaries and Israeli

ALSO SEE:

Colloquy Live: Read the transcript of a live, online discussion with Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a sociologist and dean of the faculty of social sciences at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, about his new book, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Prometheus/Humanity Books).


officials joined hundreds of ordinary citizens making their way to the top of a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea. They gathered to proclaim this secluded fortress, called Masada, one of the world's most important historical sites -- a place worthy of global attention and protection.

The United Nations, which put the Israeli mesa on the list of World Heritage Sites, chose the place in part to commemorate the Jewish rebels who held the lofty stronghold, and eventually perished there, in the waning days of a revolt against the Roman Empire in AD 73. In its report on Masada, the U.N. concludes that "the tragic events during the last days of the Jewish refugees who occupied the fortress and palace of Masada make it a symbol both of Jewish cultural identity and, more universally, of the continuing human struggle between oppression and liberty."

One prominent Israeli scholar, though, stayed home. He tossed aside his invitation and instead made scornful remarks to the news media. For Nachman Ben-Yehuda, a sociologist who is dean of the faculty of social sciences at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Masada stands as a symbol of national mythology and academic deception -- a case study of how archaeologists can hijack the scientific method for ideological purposes.

In his controversial new book, Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Prometheus/Humanity Books), Mr. Ben-Yehuda accuses Israel's most celebrated archaeologist, the late Yigael Yadin, of professional misconduct in his excavations at the site during the 1960s. After studying transcripts of conversations and documents written during the work and years later, Mr. Ben-Yehuda concludes that Yadin conducted "a scheme of distortion which was aimed at providing Israelis with a spurious historical narrative of heroism."

Many archaeologists, however, reject Mr. Ben-Yehuda's harsh assessment and even accuse him, in turn, of manipulating facts to promote his own agenda. "He twists and distorts things," says Jodi Magness, a professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who has excavated at Masada in recent years. "It's very disturbing to me. I can only imagine that Yadin must be rolling in his grave."

Diamond in the Desert

Seen from above, Masada is literally a diamond in the desert -- a kite-shaped mesa 2,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide, rising 1,500 feet above the Dead Sea. It sits at a schism where two giant patches of the earth's crust have ripped apart, exposing a gaping chasm so deep that it ranks as the lowest spot on any continent.

The violent human history there mirrors its geologic past. For millennia, warriors have retreated to the flat top of the plateau to escape their enemies. Surrounded by cliffs, Masada provides a superb natural refuge that one group after another has exploited over the ages. Its Hebrew name (pronounced "Me-tza-dah") means fortress.

The most extravagant resident of Masada was Herod the Great, who was appointed client-king of the Jewish nation by the Roman emperor in 40 BC. Around 31 BC, Herod built a magnificent set of palaces and fortifications on the plateau as a winter home that could also serve as a safe house in case his restive subjects rejected his rule or Cleopatra tried to take his country.

Many of Herod's buildings still remain, but they alone do not draw the crowds. It's the remarkable set of events following Herod's death that make Masada the second-most-visited spot in Israel. Before the violence of the past two years, hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors each year ascended the plateau and heard the tale of resistance and death that turned the isolated rock into a memorial.

The standard story is attributed to Josephus Flavius, a Roman historian who had been a Jewish priest and commander. In The Jewish War, he tells how the "Great Revolt" broke out in AD 66, when militant Jews rejected Roman rule and kicked the foreign forces out of Jerusalem.

A group of Jewish rebels, known to history as the Zealots, took over Masada soon after the start of the revolt and occupied the site for seven years. After the Roman army reconquered Jerusalem and the rest of the country, Masada stood as the remaining pocket of Jewish resistance.

In AD 73, the Roman general Flavius Silva marched thousands of troops to the base of the plateau and built a siege wall around it, trapping the 967 Jewish men, women, and children at the top. The Roman forces built a ramp along the western edge of the plateau and hauled equipment to the top to batter down the walls of the fortress. As the Romans were breaching the defenses, the leader of the rebels, Elazer Ben Ya'ir, persuaded his people to burn their belongings and to kill themselves rather than let the women and children be taken as slaves.

When the Romans reached the top, Josephus says, they were "met with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was." The only survivors were two women and five children who had hidden themselves and so lived to describe the rebels' last acts to the Romans.

From Army to Archaeology

Two millennia later, another charismatic Jewish leader was rallying his troops at the summit of Masada. In 1963, Yigael Yadin marshaled a force there to carry out the most massive archaeological excavation ever attempted in Israel. He had served as a military commander of Jewish forces from the 1930s to the early '50s before going into archaeology. He gained fame in that discipline by studying one of the Dead Sea Scrolls that had been found in cliffs not far north of Masada. Written by the Essenes, a messianic Jewish sect, the scrolls provide a window into Jewish life around the time of Jesus.

Yadin came to Masada hoping to find more scrolls and motivated as well by Josephus's historical account, say his former students. Between October 1963 and April 1965, he led an archaeological team financed mainly by overseas backers and staffed largely by international volunteers and members of the Israeli Defense Forces. Igor Stravinsky gave thousands of dollars. Donations also came from The Observer, a London newspaper, which ran reports on the digging, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda.

The site attracted so much interest because Masada had by that time become a symbol of Jewish strength in the face of great odds. The Israeli army held regular ceremonies atop the hallowed site, inducting soldiers into the elite armored unit with the oath, "Masada shall not fall again!"

When Yadin's forces started excavating on the plateau, they found unmistakable signs that the Jewish rebels had occupied the fortress at precisely the time Josephus had said. The diggers uncovered living quarters, written scrolls, Jewish coins minted during the rebellion, pottery, weapons, and clothes. At the base of the plateau, the remnants of the Roman walls and siege camps were still clear, as was the earthen ramp constructed along the western edge, on top of a natural embankment.

Other evidence provided clues about the rebels' final moments. The archaeologists found signs of a great fire that had consumed the defenders' possessions. They also discovered many ostraca, or potsherds with writing on them. A cluster of a dozen ostraca in particular made a strong impression because 11 of them each bore a Jewish name -- one of which was Ben Ya'ir, the name of the rebel commander.

In his 1966 book on the excavations, Yadin called that cluster of ostraca the excavation's most spectacular find, even if it did not hold the most archaeological importance. "We were struck by the extraordinary thought: 'Could it be that we had discovered evidence associated with the death of the very last group of Masada's defenders?'" Josephus had described how 10 men were selected by lottery to kill the rest of the rebel families and then drew lots to determine which one of the 10 would slay the remaining fighters and finally himself. Yadin wondered whether the ostraca were the lots cast by the last 10 defenders and their commander. "We'll never know for certain. But the probability is strengthened by the fact that among these 11 inscribed pieces of pottery was one bearing the name 'Ben Ya'ir.'" At that time and place, such a name could refer only to the commander, said Yadin.

For the archaeological team and people around the world, such finds and others buttressed the tale of rebellion and suicide on that windswept mountaintop. "The archaeological interpretation provided for this [ostraca] discovery by the most authoritative contemporary voice -- that of Yadin -- helped bring into being a construction which appeared to give unequivocal support to Josephus's narrative," writes Mr. Ben-Yehuda.

'Falsifying Historical Evidence'

Unfortunately, the construction rests on a flimsy and even fraudulent foundation, he charges. It involved "falsifying historical evidence and concealing facts, adapting deceptive techniques and inventing historical realities," according to Mr. Ben-Yehuda, who has long done research on scientists who deviate from the mainstream, both those who commit fraud and those who legitimately seek out new methods of exploration.

Over the past decade, Mr. Ben-Yehuda has dedicated a large portion of his time to exposing what he sees as the Israeli self-delusion over Masada. He is not the first to have questioned the facts surrounding the rebellion that ended there, but he has provided one of the loudest voices on the topic.

In The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking in Israel (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995), Mr. Ben-Yehuda looks at the origins of what he calls the myth: that Masada was a heroic tale, worthy of celebration. He argues that the standard story's description of the Jewish rebels as Zealots -- religious revolutionaries -- is a distortion of Josephus's narrative by early Zionists. Josephus actually said the rebels belonged to a group known as the Sicarii.

The distinction is crucial, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda, because Josephus characterizes the Sicarii as political extremists, distinct from the Zealots. The name Sicarii comes from sica, the daggers that members of the group carried and used to assassinate their opponents, whether Jewish or Roman. According to Josephus, the Sicarii turned their weapons on the leaders of moderate Jews who submitted to Roman rule.

The Sicarii left Jerusalem early in the revolt, and they were the ones who took over Masada. While there, they raided the nearby Jewish town of En Gedi, killing some 700 people and stealing the town's food, says Josephus.

Contrary to the popular tale of heroism at Masada, Mr. Ben-Yehuda views the Sicarii as terrorists who killed innocent people and committed suicide rather than fight to the death. "If you read Josephus Flavius, there is no heroism" in the Masada story, the professor says. But like other Israelis of his generation and preceding ones, the 54-year-old scholar was weaned on the heroic epic, which had been molded by the Zionists to forge a new Jewish identity, he says. "They needed a new type of Jew, somebody who was willing to fight and die for his own country."

After finishing his first book, Mr. Ben-Yehuda wondered how a scientist as celebrated as Yadin could have perpetuated the myth. That curiosity turned into a research project when the sociologist learned that Yadin had tape-recorded the nightly meetings of his team during the Masada excavations. Examining transcripts of those discussions, Mr. Ben-Yehuda compared them with what Yadin said later about the excavations in his speeches, articles, and, most important, in his 1966 book, Masada: Herod's Fortress and the Zealots' Last Stand (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

What emerged from that research disturbed Mr. Ben-Yehuda, who says Yadin consistently distorted Josephus's words and the data that emerged from the digs. "It's obvious why he does that, because he wants to make the people who were on Masada appear in a more positive light."

Problem Bones

By contrast, Mr. Ben-Yehuda casts much of Yadin's work in a negative light. In addition to faulting the archaeologist for calling the Masada rebels Zealots and failing to mention the massacre at En Gedi, the new book charges that he:
  • Labeled the dozen ostraca as potential "lots," when there were actually two more than Josephus described in his narrative.

  • Implied that the mass suicide happened in a part of the lower palace, which Mr. Ben-Yehuda says was too small to hold the 967 people on Masada at the time.

  • Never published a full scholarly report on the excavations, and prevented others from doing so until his death at the age of 67, in 1984.

  • Interpreted one building as a ritual bath and another as a synagogue, although the evidence was equivocal.

In the latter case, Mr. Ben-Yehuda says, Yadin was originally cautious, during the nightly meeting on November 6, 1963, in deciphering the use of a particular building that was designed to hold many people. Archaeologists at that session suggested that the building might be a synagogue, but Yadin demanded more proof. That caution disappeared a few days later, when he spoke to the news media, which reported the find as possibly a synagogue -- a conclusion that was unwarranted at the time, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda. Later, archaeologists made other discoveries -- including texts from Deuteronomy buried under the floor -- that solidified the interpretation of the structure as a synagogue.

Mr. Ben-Yehuda finds another major problem in the descriptions of the human skeletons found on Masada. Although Josephus wrote that nearly a thousand people committed suicide, the excavations uncovered the bones of only about 28 people, in two locations. For Mr. Ben-Yehuda, the story of those bones provides proof of Yadin's penchant for twisting the data to his own purposes.

Early in the excavation, the team found the remains of a man, woman, and child in Herod's former palace on the northern side of the plateau. In one of the Yadin team's nightly discussions, an anthropologist estimated that the woman had been 17 or 18 years old, the man between 20 and 22, and the child 11 to 12. In the same discussion, Yadin responded that the man and women could be a couple, but that the woman could not be the child's mother because of their ages. Yadin concluded that the man was a rebel warrior because some armor was found at the same spot.

Two years later, in an interim report, Yadin wrote, "It cannot be stated with certainty that these skeletons are those of the family of that last warrior who ... took the lives of his family and set the palace on fire ... but there seems to be no doubt that these skeletons are those of the people of the Great Revolt."

Although Yadin took care to qualify the uncertainty of his hypothesis at that point, his hesitation vanished over time, says Mr. Ben-Yehuda. In 1971, the archaeologist wrote that "the skeletons undoubtedly represent the remains of an important commander of Masada and his family."

Then, in a speech atop Masada in 1973, he said, "I shall mention the remains of the three fighters that we found in the northern palace: a very important commander, his wife, and their child, just like the description in Josephus Flavius."

To Mr. Ben-Yehuda, the metamorphosis in those statements exposes Yadin. "It was obviously a deliberate, falsified interpretation, one that had nothing to do with the facts, and it was meant to make audiences believe in a mythical narrative."

That statement angered North Carolina's Ms. Magness, who took a course with Yadin during her freshman year at Hebrew University. "That's not true," she says, "and it's libelous."

In fact, she accuses Mr. Ben-Yehuda of sloppy scholarship. "There are places where this guy not only distorts things but puts in factual errors in order to make his case."

For example, the professor accuses Yadin of misleading readers by wrongly implying "that the revolt against the Romans was a popular one and encompassed all the Jewish population." But Yadin was correct, Ms. Magness says. "During the course of the war, everybody became involved, moderates as well as radicals. Yes, the war was countrywide. It did involve massacres of Jews all over the place."

Similar reactions to Mr. Ben-Yehuda come from four former students of Yadin's who took part in the excavations during the 1960s and since have become some of Israel's top archaeologists. Ehud Netzer, a professor in the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University, says he hasn't read the new book but has discussed its contents with the author. "Nonsense, pure nonsense," is Mr. Netzer's synopsis.

He and Gideon Foerster, a professor at the institute, coordinated the publication of the final report on Masada, which came out in six volumes during the 1990s. Mr. Foerster says Yadin cannot be faulted for calling the rebels Zealots because that was the conventional term used by scholars, and the Sicarii fit its conventional use. In fact, in his 1966 book, Yadin referred to the Sicarii as a subgroup of Zealots. He chose a term that people would understand. "Nobody knows what Sicarii means, and everybody knows what Zealots means," says Mr. Foerster.

Morever, it was important to put Josephus's story in context, says Ze'ev Meshel, a retired professor at the institute. The historian, who was extremely critical of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, had his own political reasons for coloring events, and Yadin's team tried to take those issues into account, Mr. Meshel says.

When the archaeological discoveries matched the historical account, Yadin found such parallels compelling, and he described them to the public, says Mr. Foerster. "He was an excellent lecturer, and he wrote in an interesting way, and people were very enthusiastic." Yadin offered his own interpretations, but he did so responsibly, Mr. Foerster adds. In the case of the skeletons, he says, Yadin may have gone a little too far, "but it's a side point. It's not very significant."

Yoram Tsafrir, another professor at the institute, says Yadin could get carried away speaking to a crowd, as do many scientists while talking to the news media or giving public lectures. "But to accuse him of forging the conclusions? This is far from doing justice to the man. He was a great scholar and a great man."

Mr. Ben-Yehuda responds that Yadin always had a responsibility to be accurate and comprehensive, by including evidence contradicting his interpretations as well as the data supporting them. "I require from somebody who is a professor of archaeology to be very careful about what he says."

The sociologist's critical analysis does get some support from Philip L. Kohl, a professor of anthropology and Slavic studies at Wellesley College, who co-edited Nationalism, Politics, and the Practice of Archaeology (Cambridge, 1995). Mr. Ben-Yehuda's new book makes a good case that Yadin ignored data that went against his ideas, says Mr. Kohl. "I've got to believe that there was some sacrificing of truth going on [with Yadin], and that it was not just a totally unconscious procedure."

But Neil A. Silberman, a biographer of Yadin, argues that the archaeologist was a product of his time and wasn't aware of his biases. "He was living in the period of romantics. It's very difficult to confront an archaeologist of one period with all the accumulated knowledge that came subsequently," says Mr. Silberman, a historian of archaeology at the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation, in Flanders, Belgium.

As the descriptions of the skeletons show, says Mr. Silberman, Yadin's initial skepticism evaporated as time went on, just as that of other archaeologists did. "They got more and more in love with the story," he says. "As the years went by, their original hesitations got forgotten."

Mr. Ben-Yehuda's anger at Yadin makes sense because he feels deceived by earlier generations, much as other Israelis do, says Mr. Silberman. "The intellectual outrage at discovering the tales my father told me aren't true is still really raw. It's still part of the process of Israel trying to find some possible direction into the future. It is still in the realm of contradicting, criticizing, deconstructing."

For his part, Mr. Ben-Yehuda says he believes that Josephus's version of history probably was correct: The Sicarii held out against a Roman siege and committed suicide on top of Masada. But the scholar suggests that some of the people on Masada died against their will, and that there is no honor in the actions of the Sicarii. "I would not make it a World Heritage Site. Why should we? What is the 'heritage' there? Death? Futile and unwise revolt? Collective suicide by a group of political assassins?"

Still, he remains wistful for the days when he saw Masada as a national shrine and an uncomplicated symbol, rather than a morally ambiguous, commercialized tourist spot. "I have some warm corners in my heart for the Masada I knew as a kid," he says. "There is a sense of disappointment going up there and being so cynical about it."


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Section: Research & Publishing
Volume 49, Issue 15, Page A16


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Copyright 2002 by The Chronicle of Higher Education